Notes from Health Cell Special Call on Air Pollution in N India

Health Cell Special Call on air pollution.  Sunday Nov 5 2017

Present:  Aravinda, Sri, Isha, Manish, Sonika, Danvir, Vijay, Benil, Sherry, Bono


Aravinda – DC-Metro, facilitating this call on behalf of Health Cell.  Topic is relevant to Health, Agri and Environment cells and we would be looking for volunteers from all of these to help.

Sri Mirle – Cincinnati, Executive Board member, fundraising coordinator.  Chemical Engineer, interested in environmental engg as well.

Manish Mehta, new to AID Ann Arbor.  Interested in seeing what would intersect with Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, can share resources and contacts.   Would also like to introduce friend, Julia Decker, who is based in Gurugram, Haryana, works on childhood Asthma, may be able to get involved.

Sonika Sethi, DC Metro chapter – grew up in Delhi.  Day job in transportation planning.  Important to promote public awareness and education for attitude change.  For example, “People sitting in traffic”  need to recognize that they are the traffic.

Danvir Singh Sethi – Boston MetroWest – new chapter in the Boston area.  Grew up in Chandigarh, interested in understanding the issue and taking action.

Isha Gupta – Ann Arbor – grew up in Delhi.  Have seen pollution problem up close.

Vijay Kale – Columbus – health cell.  Toxicologist by training.  Tremendous and terrible issue.

Benil Anton – Ann Arbor – interested, have been following the issue on the news.

Sherry Frosh – Delhi – used to live in Houston, before in Columbus.  Husband Nishant from Ann Arbor, also AID volunteer.  Chemical Engineer. Is now a mom, part of Citizens for Clean Air in Gurgaon.  Very concerned, have been following the pollution. Throughout winter the color code is RED – very dangerous.

Bono Sen – Currently based in Gurgaon.  Previously lived in Chapel Hill.  Worked in National Institute of Environmental Health sciences and US EPA. In India I work for Center for Environmental Health at public health foundation of India.

— Discussion — Scroll to end for Action Items — 

Dangerous levels of air pollution

Air Quality Index in Delhi remains at dangerously high levels of pollution throughout the winter. Screenshot from Nov 5 2017.

Air Quality Index (AQI)   – Above 100 or 150 is considered unhealthy.  Delhi is routinely above 200, 300.  At this moment the Air Quality Index website reports Delhi AQI to be above 600.  

In fact in all metros in N India AQI is at a very high level.  Rural areas are also suffering but do not have air quality monitors.

Indian Medical Association has called this a National Emergency.

Question (Sri) – Why is Delhi substantially worse than other metros such as Mumbai, Bangalore?


  • Cooler weather keeps the pollution in one place. (Sherry)
  • This is also the time for crop burning. (Sherry)
  • Delhi has more cars than all three metros combined. (Bono)

The level of pollution in Delhi isI like smoking 20 cigarettes a day just by breathing the air. Richer people are aware, some have air filters. But people living in bastis may not even be aware, have no filters etc.

Sherry – Odd-even experiment which cut car usage in half did not show results in air pollution levels. .Need to do more research.  Crop burning contributes to 30% of pollution.  It is across N India.  It is making the cities worse. Even if we stop driving and stop construction, the crop burning will still be a problem.

Aravinda – talked about MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE, an organization of over 1 million concerned parents taking action on air pollution.  Sherry & Bono noted that there are citizens groups in India but need to be much stronger.

Air pollution map of India. Source: http://indpaedia.com/ind/index.php/Air_pollution:_India

Bono – In past 1.5 years, I am not seeing the right kinds of actions.  There is a lot of talk about policy level work. There is an air quality steering committee report brought out by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare –  Report of the Steering Committee on Air Pollution and Health-Related Issues. New Delhi, India: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India (August 2015).

It has all kinds of recommendations that the steering committee made.  Till date nothing has been done. I have visited all departments in the ministry, that file is gathering dust.  Before we talk about policy level action, we need to pause and see what is being done in that field. Everyone talks about what the govt needs to do.  Citizen action is really lacking in this country. Delhi has the highest level of attention, not necessarily the highest level of pollution.  US embassy people cannot bring in staff, because people are not able to live in Delhi, hence the issue is raised.

People are talking about crop burning because diwali and crop burning coincided and Delhi was covered in a grey haze. This year so far the wind has not blown the crop dust to Delhi. The govt of india stance is that the number of deaths due to air pollution cannot be verified.The govt of india stance is that the number of deaths due to air pollution cannot be verified.

Detailed info & infographics on air pollution posted by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda and colleagues here: http://www.urbanemissions.info

Apart from respiratory problems, air pollution has severe neuro developmental health outcomes. Policies do not change until our priorities change.  People’s priorities need to change.  We are all part of the problem.

Sri – we support a project in Punjab, KVS, they do a lot of awareness and training maybe they can help with the crop burning issue.

Bono – Crop burning is an economic issue.  The machines that are available in India to get rid of that stubble are very expensive.  I haven’t spoken to him about this issue but we can reach out see – try to understand what is the farmers’ perspective.  

Manish – for citizens groups to be more active, we can try to target rotary and lions clubs. They are always looking for speakers – we could give a 20-30 minute talk, use social media tools to raise awareness.

Sherry – Some specific things I would like from AID

We can give AQ monitors to rural areas – e.g. in Punjab.   Tell people that when you are burning, your children are breathing it too. What would farmers need in order to stop burning the waste?

Vijay – We need to raise awareness on health effects. State and central govt., transport ministry, all are accountable. Agriculture activists, environmental activists, research institutes should all get involved.

Action Items:

  1. Engage in conversations with rural farmers about crop burning, possible alternatives and what they think about trying them. Facilitate use of alternatives, if farmers are ready to try.
  2. Find out what would help people move away from biomass based stoves to smokeless chulhas.
  3. Provide AQ monitors in rural areas to raise awareness about AQ levels.



Vijay will set up google group on air pollution issues.  Update: Interested volunteers are invited to join Air Pollution in North India.

Isha, Bono, Vijay, Sherry and Danvir will contact agri partners to initiate conversation on crop burning practices and alternatives, find out farmers perspective.

Isha / Ann Arbor volunteers  – Chetana Vikas – Maharashtra and Inspire – TN

Dhanvir – Sunderbans – West Bengal

Sherry – SKMS – Uttarakhand

Bono – Umendra Dutt / KVM – Punjab

Vijay – Paryavaran Surakhsa Samiti  – Gujarat

Report back on discussions with farmers groups at next call, Sunday, Nov 12 11 am EST.

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